A Charlotte Mason Education, Best Practices, Composition, Masterly Inactivity, Narration, Paradigm Shift, Practical Application
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Practical Suggestions for Narration by Carroll Smith

We end this series on narration for those new to Charlotte Mason with some practical suggestions. I hope these suggestions help teachers and parents to get started with narration and to remove fears about how to narrate.  Please don’t hesitate to ask questions.  Although some may think, “what is all the fuss about narration?”  it is much more complicated and practical than is expected upon a shallow first look.  Building oral language through retelling or narrating is basic to our humanness.

8.  What are some practical helps for the 6 year old who has no experience with narration?

Start with the child narrating his experiences. When a six year old starts her formal education, we mustn’t read a whole chapter of Little House on the Prairie and ask her to narrate; that is expecting too much.  The ability to visualize and sequence are key to the mental processes involved in narration and they can be developed through asking children to tell what they did that morning.  Encourage the child to see herself in bed first opening her eyes, then standing, walking, walking to where and doing what, etc.  Encourage her to use her mind’s eye to see herself by asking “What do I do first? What is second?  What is next?”  This begins the process of sequencing and these concrete, experiential situations are easier to visualize than scenes from a book.  Remember also that your auditory learners don’t necessarily use visual images in their minds.  They depend more on sounds than images.  They need this training to help strengthen their visual skills.

Continue with narrating concrete experiences with an explore walk. Go on an explore walk around the school, home, apartment or yard and upon returning, have them tell what they saw or heard or touched that was interesting to them, always encouraging them to see with their mind’s eye what they did.  Then, after sufficient and successful narration of these experiences, encourage the child to see the character in a story in the same way she saw herself.  Narration requires the child to use her mind to create a scene where she is on the edge of that scene looking in to see what is happening.  As she is looking in, she is involved with the character)s), she is “inhabiting the story” as Eugene Peterson says.  This is the labour of the mind that children must do.  True knowing cannot happen without this, and there is no short cut to this kind of active imagining.  This, I believe, is what Mason is trying to get us to understand in her chapter on Masterly Inactivity.  I would encourage a rereading of her concepts of Masterly Inactivity.

Part of this process is the use of language combined with imagining.  Using these together are at least part of what Mason means when she says children must labour with their minds.  Again, this is why very young children should be encouraged to talk, expressing what they see and hear.

Children who have had many opportunities for the above kind of recounting, who have talked about what interests them, and who have been read too may take to narrating as a squirrel takes to climbing trees.  Even with such a child, nevertheless do not begin narrating too large a text, like a whole chapter.  Begin small, with a paragraph or two if needed, and increase the amount of the reading as the child is able to narrate it.  Good narrations demonstrate good retellings, sequencing, and attention to detail. Don’t make the passages so long that a child cannot attend to these things.

Sometimes it may help for the adult to ask, “And then what happened?” to encourage sequencing.  In their imaginings, we want children to have as much accurate mental images as possible so sometimes it is helpful to show the children (especially young children) beforehand any visuals that depict pictures of clothing, houses, tools, places, geographical formations,used in the story.  Looking up a picture of a canal helps the child imagine Hans Brinker. Books like the Eyewitness Series and DK books that contain excellent photographs and fact texts (but not the Story) that wouldn’t be used as living books in themselves can serve as complements to narration to supply visuals beforehand to children so they can engage the living books with accurate mental pictures.

9.  What about older children new to narrating?

What happens when a 10 year old taught in another paradigm of education moves to the Mason paradigm?  One cannot assume that because a child is older she can narrate, as this capacity may not have been addressed in her previous setting.  Narration has to be developed and children who have not developed the habit of narration can find it hard to narrate — much like starting any good habit.  To set this child up for success in narrating, find a living book that is highly engaging and manageable for her. Don’t worry what other children that age are narrating.  The point is for the beginning student to Mason to experience the delight of reading and being engaged with a well written book and then be able to narrate it.  Don’t worry if the Dickens book on some reading list is too difficult and doesn’t engage your child.  She may need some transition books, such as Jean Fritz’s biographies.  The point is for the student to experience the delight and success of narrating a good book and as success breeds encouragement, it breeds effort, and it breeds learning. (Just as a sidebar, this success is not about the issue that children must always be successful at everything and can never experience failure and thus, learn to deal with failure.  This is about a life long need to know how to read and understand various types of text in order to function.)  Some children new to Mason may have the stamina to deal with difficult text.  The teacher or parent must make this decision.

If a child has difficulty with narrating her reading material, it may not be the choice of reading material but her weak imagining and visualizing.  She needs more experiences with active imagining and recounting the way a younger child does.  The older child new to Mason may need to put away their electronic games and experience real things, like cooking, helping a neighbour, taking a hike and then narrate these experiences.  These real life experiences and being in “real” nature are the best way to move a child towards successful narrations.

As I have said above narration begins early through play, outdoor life, and allowing children to talk about all the many experiences that they have.  Children late to Mason also need to be introduced to narration much the same way that the younger children are.  With these children I would begin their very first day with a discussion about narration, what it is, why we narrate, how to narrate.  I would NOT show them narrations that are already done and beyond their capabilities.  They, like the younger children, will grow into more difficult narrations.  Take one step at a time:  1) explain narration as just described, 2) narrate some event at home such as getting ready for school, 3) choose a text the child can easily read and understand, 4) choose a limited amount of the text as you begin, 4) narrate orally before moving to written narrations, 5) enjoy the moment and celebrate small successes even if they can only narrate a few sentences.

Here is a list of ways to begin narrating with young children and older children new to narration.

1.  Begin with an event in the child’s life that they know well that is easy to narrate such as “Tell me what you do from the time you open your eyes in the morning until you start your first lesson.”

2.  Have a discussion about what narration is and how to do it.  (Talk about sequencing the events by beginning at the beginning, tell as many details as possible, use the language of the author as well as your own language.  If the child narrates using the words and then a lot, tell the child not to use those words.  This can be very hard for young children today who have this habit.  I just worked with a group of second graders who were in the habit of saying and then.  So, I demonstrated how not to narrate by narrating and saying repeatedly and then emphasizing those words.  We had a conversation about how boring that was.  When asked later by their teacher about how to narrate one child said that they were not allowed to say and then.  The teacher said well, then, how do you narrate?  The child responded, “Just like telling a story.”  Mason is correct, children are able to do far better than we think.

3.  Read a short section of a favourite book and you model the narration.

4.  Take a nature walk and when you return have the children tell you about it listing the order in which they saw things and describe those things, or at least one thing in as much detail as possible.  Again, not too many “things” because this can become overwhelming.

5.  Read an Aesop’s Fable and have the child narrate to you.

6.  Read a paragraph in a book such as Little House on the Prairie and have the child narrate it back to you. And continue on in that book or a similar book that they will enjoy.

7.  Continue reading the same book narrating short sections and increasing the length of the sections as your child gets stronger and stronger at narrating.

10.  Transitioning from Oral Narrations to Written

The time between about third grade and fourth or around the ages of 8 and 9 children begin the transition from orally narrating all the time to writing their narrations.  All children should begin narrating orally first and for the sake of time it needs to remain the dominate way to narrate.  Even children who are older but are new to narrating.  They should begin by orally narrating and then move on to written narrations.  How does this transition take place?  Here are a few suggestions to help.

1.  You can begin by having the children narrate orally a portion of a reading and then finish it by writing the remaining part.

2.  You can begin by having the children write the first part of the narration and then finish it orally.

3.  If the child has been narrating and does well with an oral narration, but cannot write to the same degree, reduce the size of the reading selection to match with the ability to write.   Increase the reading selection as the child strengthens their writing abilities.  So a combination of 1, 2, and 3, might work well for your child.

4. Kerri Forney suggests that Aesop’s fables can be beneficial for this process.  She says, “Aesop’s fables are great for the next step.  Read the fable and then have them write their narration.  The story is short, has a plot with action, and it is easy to say what happened.  It is sometimes less daunting to a child to start writing about that than say about a chapter in Our Island Story where the names alone can be a bit overwhelming for the child to write down” (email, 6 Nov 2013).

5.  For children new to the Mason method, I am inclined to write on the board names and words unfamiliar to the child so they can write their narration without hesitation.

6.  Remember that however you begin, make sure the child is successful as they attempt because success breeds success.

11.  What are some ways to Narrate?

When you first begin narrating I suggest to keep it simple.

1.  Oral

2.  Written

3.  Drawing the scene

4.  Diagram or labelling what they remember (for example, a cell)

5.  Make a list

Narrations should become more complicated as the child gets more proficient.

1.  Write a narration as a poem, then,

2.  Write a poem on the content of this chapter in the style of . . . .

3.  Draw and label the structure of a cell that was just read about.

4.  See the back of School Education for many more examples.

This leads us naturally to narration in the upper grades.

12.  Narrations for Upper Grades

If you take a look at the examination questions at the back of School Education you will notice a change in the questions.  The early grades frequently use “Tell me all you know . . . “ while for the upper grades the questions get more complicated.  It is crucial in my opinion that if you want young people to write responses to more complicated examination questions, you must prepare them through the use of day to day narrations.

Here are some points to remember:

1.  For the sake of time oral narration is still a good option for upper grades.

2.  So that all children narrate, even the younger ones, I would use pair narrations frequently.  Each child gets an opportunity to narrate almost every lesson.  Begin the narration with one child narrating and a few minutes into their narration say “switch” so the other child is responsible to pick up and finish the narration.  This promotes all children narrating rather than drifting because one child was chosen to narrate which then means the others can float.

3.  Instead of saying to the upper grades narrate the story, you might say:

a.  Give a description of the final scene in detail.

b.  Write a description of the main character and tell all you know about him/her so far using examples from the text to support your response.

c.  Write a comparison between two of the characters.

d.  Write a description of what you know so far about the setting of this story.

4.  For a student in the upper grades new to narration you might use a graphic organizer.  For example, a new student could complete letter c above by using a Venn diagram.  Using a Venn diagram they make a list of the things they remember about each character and the student puts them into three categories:  unique to each character (2 categories) and then a category in which the characteristics are the same for both.  I would not stay at this level.  Young people need to learn to articulate their thoughts in writing prose not just in making lists.  Lists as narrations are certainly acceptable, but should not be the only way young people narrate.

These are narrations so a child completes any of these suggested means of narrating without looking back at the text.  They complete the list, the Venn diagram, the descriptions, etc. without looking back to the text.  Narrations get more complicated as children get older.  Refer to the back of School Education and read the examination questions that Mason used.  These will be fodder for lots of ideas to write your own examination questions as well as means to ask upper grades students to narrate.

Remember:

1.  One reading, One narration.

2.  Narration is about knowing not a collection of facts.

3.  Narration develops writing, comprehension, spelling, sentence structure, sequencing and much more — all which are needed for good composition.

4.  Narration develops oral language/oral language develops narration – they work together.

5.  Oral language is the precursor to all other language development.

6.  Copious reading and narrating means copious vocabulary and writing skills.

7.  Narration informs us.

8.  Narration of living books/stories builds character — probably the most important function of narration.

Narrations are always followed by a “Grand Conversation” which is a term used to explain the follow-up after a child narrates.  This is a time for the children to ask their questions and express their ideas about what has just been read and narrated and for teachers to ask “I wonder” questions.  It is NOT a time for the adult to teach something they want to make sure the children understand in a didactic way.  If the children miss a major point the teacher should then ask an “I wonder” question.  The Grand Conversation is another whole blog in and of itself.  You can see Dr. Jennifer Spencer’s blog on the topic on the Institute’s blog  or on her Willow Tree Community School Blog.

And there is much more that narration does.   These are ideas about narration and ways to narrate that hopefully will get your started.

©  2014 by Carroll Smith

by

Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

5 Comments

  1. mathairfiona says

    “The Grand Conversation” sounds like a skill that helping professionals are taught to help build rapport and help clients find solutions to their problems. My experience is primarily with youth, and that skill is so helpful when helping young people work though ideas.

  2. I have noticed the term “masterly inactivity” mentioned in Miss Mason’s writing. Up t a few months ago, my understanding came from what I have read on people’s blogs. They have more often than stated that it is allowing a child to be left alone to play freely and to think on what they have learned – especially in the afternoon hours where they can role play what they have learned and so on.

    I have done a little research on this concept recently in Miss Mason’s writings, and I am seeing it is very different from what I have read on these blogs. I have noticed that she mentions ‘masterly inactivity’ to be utilized while a child is doing his studies. I would really appreciate it if you could explain this concept further and its many applications.

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